Toledo's Dominique Buckley, who had 21 points, drives inside against UNC-Wilmington's K.K. Simmons. Buckley scored 10 straight UT points in the second half to lead the Rockets' comeback.
Despite scoring 10 straight points in the second half and leading the comeback for the University of Toledo men's basketball team Wednesday night against North Carolina Wilmington, Dominique Buckley maintains he wasn't thinking at all about offense.
That's because UT coach Tod Kowalczyk challenged Buckley at halftime to pick up his defensive effort. The junior guard was part of the reason UNCW freshman guard Adam Smith was walking all over the Rockets, and for them to get back in the game, they had to slow down Smith.
Consider the message delivered, because Smith scored just 10 of his game-high 27 points in the second half and Toledo held on for a 75-73 victory in front of 3,785 at Savage Arena when Smith's 3-point heave at the buzzer fell short of the rim.
"Coach jumped on me in particular about my defense, and I knew I had to respond," Buckley said. "I wanted to start off with my defense, but it just so happened that the ball bounced my way on the offensive end."
Buckley posted a career-high 21 points and seven assists for the Rockets (5-1), who have won five straight and are off to their best start since the 2003-04 season when they also were 5-1.
"I guess the great thing about tonight is we're disappointed [after] a win," Kowalczyk said. "That hasn't happened a whole lot around here. I don't think we played particularly well. [I'm] disappointed with our energy, disappointed with our enthusiasm."
The Seahawks (0-5) led by as many as 10 with 6:03 left in the first half and held a 56-49 advantage with 10:58 remaining.
But Toledo took the lead with a 10-3 run late in the second half -- with all of the Rockets' points coming from Buckley. His two made free throws with 4:51 to play gave UT a 65-64 advantage, and the Rockets never relinquished the lead from there.
Sophomore guard Rian Pearson added 18 points and nine rebounds for Toledo, while freshman guard Julius Brown recorded 15 points and seven assists. Sophomore forward Matt Smith had 12 points.
"I give our guys credit," Kowalczyk said. "They never panicked, they never got negative and when we had to make plays, they did. And that's the sign of a good team."
It started with Buckley, who has emerged as one of the Rockets' leaders but hasn't necessarily provided a huge boost in the scoring column until Wednesday. He entered the game averaging 10.2 points in UT's first five games.
"He hasn't played with the swagger that he's capable of," Kowalczyk said. "But you've got to remember now, he hasn't played basketball since he was in high school and he's a senior academically. He didn't play at [his previous school] Iowa State and sat out all of last year.
"Tonight, that second half, he was really good for us. Really good for us, and thank God for that because we needed him."
Pearson said the key for the Rockets was keeping their composure late and not allowing UNCW's early momentum to carry over into the second half. "We didn't panic," he said. "That's what's most important. We just kept grinding it out."
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ZachSilka.